ATLANTA – There was no shortage of scoring in the 2019 Celebration Bowl, but the Alcorn State University football program finished on the short end of a 64-44 final to North Carolina A&T on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The game featured 1,034 combined yards of total offense.
Alcorn (9-4, 6-1 SWAC) was playing catch-up for most of the way, but showed no quit. The Braves scored five touchdowns in the second half to keep within striking defense of North Carolina A&T (9-3, 6-2 MEAC).
Junior Felix "Triggerman" Harper, the SWAC Offensive Player of the Year, totaled five touchdowns. He threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns, and also rushed for a pair of scores. Harper completed 25 passes, which matched his career-high.
A career day came from senior Chris Blair in his final game. He caught seven passes for a career-high 150 yards and a touchdown. Fellow senior Raidarious Anderson hauled in a game-high eight receptions for 85 yards and a touchdown.
Junior Juwan Taylor led the defense with nine tackles.
NCAT's Kylil Carter threw for 364 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. His top target was Korey Banks with 122 yards and two scores. Jah-Main Martin rushed for 110 yards and two touchdowns.
The first big play of the game came on specials teams. The Braves punted it away on their second drive, and the return was fumbled. Junior Mikail Webb knocked it loose and junior LeCharles Pringle dove on it at the NCAT 34.
The Braves moved the chains on a third down catch by Anderson to place the ball at the NCAT 23. A first down run by senior De'Shawn Waller moved it to the NCAT 11. Alcorn couldn't advance it further, but drilled a 28-yard field goal by senior Corey McCullough to lead 3-0 at the 3:17 mark.
The Aggies got on the board early in the second quarter. It came on a 53-yard touchdown bomb to Elijah Bell to put NCAT up 7-3 with 13:03 left.
The Braves responded on their ensuing drive. It started with a 16-yard run by freshman Niko Duffey, and followed with a 16-yard reception by sophomore Juan Anthony Jr. The scoring play was a 36-yard pass to Blair as he was found open past the secondary to put Alcorn back ahead 10-7 with 10:16 remaining.
NCAT answered with a big passing play of its own. On a play-action fake, Carter slung it deep to Zachary Leslie for a 59-yard score to put the Aggies back on top 14-10 with 7:55 to go.
The Aggies got the ball back in the red zone after an interception was returned to the Alcorn 5. The Braves made a defensive stand, as NCAT settled for a 26-yard field goal to lead 17-10 at the 5:05 mark.
NCAT added-on another score late on a four-yard touchdown pass to take a 24-10 advantage into halftime. A critical pass interference call on 3rd-and-15 extended the drive.
On the very first play of the second half, Martin broke loose through the right side for a 75-yard touchdown run to extend NCAT's lead to 31-10.
The Braves moved the ball on their opening series of the second half. A 21-yard reception by Pringle got it going, and Alcorn moved the chains again on a 15-yard catch by Blair. Alcorn cut the deficit to 31-17 on a six-yard quarterback-keeper by Harper with 11:37 remaining.
The Aggies fired away again on a deep pass and scored on a 43-yard reception by Ron Hunt. It pushed NCAT's lead back up to 38-17 with 10:06 left in the third.
Going back the other way, Blair registered a 40-yard catch down the right sideline to begin Alcorn's next drive. The Braves quickly got in the end zone on a 23-yard run up the middle by Waller to trail 38-24 with 9:09 to go.
The Aggies put together a 10-play, 68-yard scoring drive to stay ahead 45-24. The scoring play was a 20-yard pass to Bell at the 4:56 mark.
The offense kept rolling as a 37-yard reception by Blair quickly moved the ball into NCAT territory. The Braves scored on the next play on a 35-yard pass to Anderson to make it a 45-31 game with 3:49 remaining.
The shootout continued in the third, as the Aggies scored on a 73-yard touchdown pass to Banks. NCAT led 52-31 with 2:50 left.
Alcorn's defense made a play early in the fourth quarter as junior Chris Monroe popped a fumble loose and senior Taurence Wilson dove on it in the red zone. On the very next play, senior Nigel Wood was wide-open in the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown to cut it to 52-38 with 13:14 remaining.
NCAT was on the move midway through the fourth and got to the red zone when Alcorn's defense made a stop. Though, the Aggies were able to hit a 38-yard field goal and led 55-38 with seven minutes left to play.
Alcorn's offense kept its foot on the pedal late in the game. A pair of quarterback scrambles by Harper, and then a one-yard keeper by Harper capped the drive. However, a botched snap on the extra point was returned for two points by NCAT, as the Braves trailed 57-44 at the 4:36 mark.
The Aggies tallied the final touchdown of the game on a four-yard run by Martin with 3:37 to go. It came after a 55-yard rush by Carter.
- Alcorn's 44 points were the most it's ever scored in a postseason bowl or playoff game. The program's previous high was 36 points in the 1968 Orange Blossom Classic.
- Alcorn head coach Fred McNair completed his fourth season at the helm and carries a 30-19 record in his career.
- As the nation's leader in turnovers gained, Alcorn forced two fumbles in the game.
- With a 28-yard field goal in the first quarter, McCullough ended his career with 45 field goals made, the most in school history.
- Harper finished the year with 2,954 yards, 33 touchdowns and nine interceptions passing, and six rushing touchdowns. He is a Black College Football Player of the Year candidate and the winner will be announced in Feb. 2020.
- Blair's 150 receiving yards surpassed his previous best of 144 yards against Mississippi Valley State on Sept. 28, 2019. He entered the game ranked top-five in the nation in yards per reception (21.1), and submitted seven catches for 150 yards for an average of 21.4 yards per catch.
- With a slight 13-12 scoring edge in the fourth quarter, the Braves outscored the opposition 112-63 in the fourth quarter this season.
- Alcorn's captains were seniors Darrell Henderson, Javen Morrison and Blair. The Braves won the coin toss and chose to receive.
- Alcorn completed its 99th season of football. The Braves won their 17th conference championship and fourth in the last six years. Alcorn will enter 2020 as the six-time defending SWAC East Division champions and two-time reigning SWAC champions. The Braves will also carry-over a 10-game home winning-streak.
Quoting SWAC Coach of the Year Fred McNair
"It was a tough battle. On offense, I thought we did some great things. Defensively, we didn't play as well as we should have and we didn't play that perfect game that we were looking for – too many mistakes and too many points given up. We just didn't get it done."
On whether Alcorn was keying-in on stopping Martin, which opened up NCAT's passing game
"Our plan wasn't to stop Martin, our plan was to stop North Carolina A&T. We didn't do that. I credit our kids though for being relentless and the way they continued to fight until the very last second. We showed a lot of fight all season through adversity."
On whether he thought the team could get right back in it with just a few stops in the second half
"Of course I thought that. We were hoping for that. We needed to get stops, but we gave up too many big plays. I thought if we could get the deficit down to seven points then we'd be right back in it and had a good chance make a comeback. We preached all week and during pregame meal about not giving up the big plays, but we had bad eyes from our corners and safeties."
On whether he expected the game to turn out to be a shootout
"No, I didn't expect it to be a shootout, I really didn't. Felix played the same way he did throughout the course of the year. It was just a matter of us trying to get stops to give the offense another chance, but that didn't happen. I never would have expected this game to turn out like the way that it did."
On what Coach [Cedric] Thornton was telling the defense on the sidelines
"He kept telling everyone just to do their job. Though, our defensive backs had bad eyes and were trying to do things that they don't normally do. I thought we had great practices all week on the defensive side of the ball, but we didn't transition that to the field today."
On what positives he took from this game
"We scored a lot of points in the second half, and that was a positive. We're going to take a lot of things from this game from a coaching standpoint. We'll get back and watch film, and look at some of the things that we could have done better. When you lose a game like this there will always be things we can learn from it. We can't give up that many points on defense and the effort has to be there in all three phases of the game. There will always be things we have to work on."